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The Committee

The Committee

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The Committee

Lunghezza:
489 pagine
9 ore
Pubblicato:
Jan 7, 2020
ISBN:
9781617757822
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

  • Through Watson's work running an annual writers conference in Florida, Watson has many high level supporters such as Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Stewart O'Nan, Tom Franklin, etc. All of these authors will support the book.
  • Watson is also well-connected in the academic world--he was director of creative writing program at Eckerd College for 20 years and continues to teach at Pine Manor College in Boston, MA.
  • Like his previous novel, Suitcase City, the vivid Florida setting should make the book a regional hit, as well as a strong national release.
  • Suitcase City received three starred trade reviews and we are confident The Committee will be well-received as well.
  • Pubblicato:
    Jan 7, 2020
    ISBN:
    9781617757822
    Formato:
    Libro

    Informazioni sull'autore

    Sterling Watson is the author of seven novels, including Deadly Sweet, Sweet Dream Baby, Fighting in the Shade, and Suitcase City. Watson's short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Prairie Schooner, the Georgia Review, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the Michigan Quarterly Review, and the Southern Review. He was director of the creative writing program at Eckerd College for twenty years and now teaches in the Solstice MFA Program at Pine Manor College in Boston. Of his sixth novel, Suitcase City, Tom Franklin said, "If this taut literary crime novel doesn't center Sterling Watson on the map, we should change maps." Watson lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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    The Committee - Sterling Watson

    Extras

    ONE

    It was a strange sound.

    Not a scream, not a shout, not the squealing of brakes, neither obviously human nor clearly mechanical, at least not to Tom Stall’s ear.

    At three o’clock on an August afternoon, the sound drifted through the open window of Stall’s University of Florida office as he sat preparing his recommendations to the English Department chairman for September’s graduate assistantships. He sat waiting, thinking the closest thing to that sound he had ever heard was the climactic cry of the French girl he had slept with in Paris, in 1945, his only wartime indiscretion. Such a similarity—the two sounds so much alike, the first imprinted on his memory forever, the second a mystery—struck him as not just strange but ill-omened. The sound resembled love, or if not that, at least passion, and later this seemed to Stall the supreme irony of a day that would change his life forever.

    Then a girl screamed and Stall left the stuffy, cluttered office he had inherited when the department had made him assistant chairman and headed down the hall at a pace that would look determined but not hurried to anyone who noticed him. As he passed the offices whose doors were open to catch any breeze that might stir the ancient water oaks that lined both sides of Anderson Hall, he glimpsed the forms of his colleagues (those not traveling during the final days of summer) bent over the articles and books they hoped would get them tenure, or promotion, or the scholarly fame that had thus far fled them like the maiden on Keats’s Grecian urn. No one looked up from books, yellow legal pads, clacking typewriters. Apparently, no one but Stall had heard the strange sound. He was moving fast when he passed the office of Sophie Green, the new medievalist, the English graduate faculty’s first female professor. In a blue cotton skirt and a white blouse, she stood with her back to Stall, her slender fingers running along the spines of the books he had helped her carry up from a battered DeSoto with New York plates. She was pretty in the dark, intense way of actresses in movies who take off their glasses and shake out their hair declaring themselves not mere vessels of ideas, but human—human. She was Jewish, and she was brilliant. (Stall had read her work with what he had to admit was envy.) He considered stopping to ask her if she had heard anything, knew anything, but thought better of it. Better to keep moving.

    * * *

    The girl who had screamed had also vomited. Stall carefully placed his new blazer over the face of the man who lay dead on the sidewalk in front of Murphree Hall and went to the girl. He stood blocking her view of what she had already seen and looked down at the boxwood hedge behind her where her lunch of grilled cheese and french fries steamed into the hot afternoon. The smell of vomit and blood made Stall’s own stomach writhe. He patted the girl’s shoulder. She wore a sorority pin and seemed to him average for the type, in saddle oxfords, bobby socks, a short-sleeved white blouse, and a tartan skirt that covered her knees. A small crowd had gathered, and Stall thanked his stars for the thin summer-school enrollment. If Jack Leaf had fallen or jumped to his death from a third-floor classroom window a few weeks from now, fifty students might have seen him hit the pavement and a hundred more would have surrounded his broken body before anything could be done to keep them away.

    A boy in the crowd looked older than most undergraduates. He wore a light sport coat with leathered elbows and was smoking a pipe. The boy’s flattop haircut and erect bearing told Stall he was probably a veteran. Stall guided the sobbing girl to the older boy and whispered, Would you please take care of her. I’ve got to . . . He wasn’t sure exactly what he had to do, but he was the only university official here now and had to do something. The boy slipped the pipe into the breast pocket of his sport coat and put his arm around the girl’s shoulders.

    Tom Stall looked at the shocked faces of the students who had gathered and asked quietly, Did any of you see him . . . fall?

    Two boys in khakis and button-down shirts shook their heads, unable to take their eyes from the pool of blood that spread from under the canopy of Stall’s blazer. Looking at the coat and the growing puddle and hearing the first fly buzz to the smell of blood, Stall thought, The coat should cover his hands. God, I wish it were big enough to cover his hands. There was something unbearably sad about Jack Leaf’s naked hands lying palms-up on the sidewalk. They were better cared for than most men’s hands; save for traces of white chalk dust, they were immaculate. On the third finger of his right hand was a gold ring with a black-and-white insignia. Because he and Jack Leaf had talked about the ring, Stall knew the insignia was the screaming eagle of the 101st Airborne Division. A girl in the circle that surrounded Jack Leaf said, I, uh, I saw it. Him.

    She looked at Stall now as though he should prompt her. Help her tell whatever story she had to offer. The words official of the university occurred to Stall again, and he said to her gently, What did you see?

    I heard the window go up. Everyone in the crowd looked up at the open third-floor window. The sash had been thrown up all the way and the hole in the building gaped like a wound. The girl, tall and thin with big dark eyes, said, It was loud. He opened it hard, so I . . . had to look up there. He didn’t look down. He looked . . . out that way. She pointed east toward the pine forests where the relentless kudzu vines crept toward University City, gaining a few feet every day. He stepped out onto the ledge and stood there holding on, and then he just stepped out into the air. The girl’s voice diminished to a whisper. Like he was going for a walk. She peered at Stall, who nodded to encourage her. And he never did look down. I turned away before he . . . hit. But the sound was . . . Through wracking sobs the girl said, "It was horrible! He made this noise . . . just before he . . ."

    Stall had to ask the next question: Did you see anybody else up there?

    The girl shook her head and then put her hand over her mouth.

    Did he . . . say anything?

    She shook her head again, swinging the auburn hair at her cheeks. From under the tent of hair, Can I please go?

    May, Stall thought, may I go, but he said, Please, stay a little while longer until . . .

    And there he came, Ed McPhail, a campus policeman jogging toward them. McPhail directed traffic at the city’s main intersection on football weekends. He was a local character. Ballet with a Billy Club. That was what the campus newspaper had called McPhail’s gesturing and pirouetting as he guided onrushing steel and rubber to the stadium parking lot for the awesome rite of tailgating. McPhail was anything but balletic now. He had obviously run some distance, and his epauletted white shirt had come loose from his black trousers, revealing a pink rind of belly. He pulled a pad and pencil from his belt and tried to catch his breath. Stall felt his own breathing settle to something approaching normal. His job now was to make sure that the girl who had seen Jack Leaf take his walk into the air gave her name to Ed McPhail.

    Stall was passing the baton to a policeman. He was becoming what life had taught him he wanted to be—a spectator. It was a lesson neither pleasant nor unpleasant. It simply was. And Tom Stall would have bet that most men in his profession, whether veterans of the late World War or spectators to it, would agree with him if they were honest about it. What was an English professor if not a spectator?

    McPhail went around the circle writing down names and asking questions. Only the tall girl had seen Jack Leaf fall. The others had happened upon Leaf after he had ended his walk in the air, or gravity had ended it for him. But one boy said, I saw these two guys.

    Mmm-hmm, Ed McPhail said, writing.

    Tom Stall took back the baton. Guys? He moved to the boy, stood in front of him, waited until the boy looked into his face. What guys? Students?

    McPhail stopped writing and watched Stall.

    No, the boy said. Men, you know, in suits. One guy had a briefcase. The other one had . . . I think maybe a badge. The boy touched the front of his shirt. Here, on his coat pocket.

    Stall looked at Ed McPhail, who was writing it down.

    A briefcase and a badge, anything else?

    The boy shuffled his feet and squared the slide rule at his belt. An engineer in the making, Stall thought, or a kid who would fail at the mysteries of aeronautical science and end up haunting the hallways of the English Department. Yeah, the kid said.

    Stall frowned at Yeah. It was rude.

    The kid said, I mean, yes sir. They both wore suits and ties, one brown, one blue—

    You mean the suits, not the ties.

    Yes sir, the suits. Brown and dark blue. I saw them leave Murphree Hall by that door. The boy pointed at the south end of the building about fifty yards from where Stall and the others stood watching flies settle to the pool of Jack Leaf’s blood. The insects seemed to skate on the crimson surface, fattening themselves and occasionally stopping to stretch out their wings. The fingers of Leaf’s hands had curled a little as though from wherever Leaf was now, he was trying to make fists. Jack Leaf had been a fighter, Stall was certain of that. He had been to parties at Leaf’s house and seen in the man’s study three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star. And Leaf had been other things that Tom Stall had not understood.

    Ed McPhail said, These two men. Where did they go when they left the building?

    The kid turned and pointed at the quadrangle whose green expanse ended at the steps of the university library. That way.

    They went into the library?

    The boy shrugged, shook his head.

    When the ambulance bumped awkwardly over the curb and rolled across the summer grass to the sidewalk, Tom Stall stepped back to the outer edge of the circle. The rear doors swung open and a man in a white coat and carrying a doctor’s satchel hurried out. He ran only a few steps before slowing to a thoughtful amble. The look on his face said it all. It said, Again I arrive too late. It said, I have seen this too many times before. Tom Stall stayed until Jack Leaf had been carried to the ambulance. He suppressed the impulse, surprisingly strong at the last minute, to grasp the hand that wore the Screaming Eagle ring. To give the man one final press of living flesh.

    When Jack Leaf was gone and the students had drifted away murmuring and hugging one another, and the older boy who smoked a pipe had walked away with his arm around the sorority girl, the two talking in a confiding way, Tom Stall and Ed McPhail stood looking at Stall’s blazer wadded in the pool of blood. The blood was hard and black now on the hot sidewalk.

    Stall said, Who cleans this up?

    McPhail showed Stall his radio. I’ll get somebody.

    Soon?

    Yeah. McPhail sighed. Poor guy. You knew him?

    I knew him. A little, Stall thought. Too well or not well enough. It was a mystery.

    McPhail touched the sleeve of Stall’s blazer with the toe of his shoe. Yours?

    Yeah.

    Well, maybe a dry cleaner . . . ?

    No. Stall picked up the coat by the back of the collar and dropped it into the nearest trash can.

    * * *

    Tom Stall didn’t want to go back to work, and he didn’t want to go home—though he was already framing the words of the story he would tell Maureen over their first martini. He needed to clear his mind, to think—he wasn’t sure about what. He retraced his steps to Anderson Hall, skirted the front entrance, and slipped down the alley between the old redbrick building and Matherly Hall, a newer sandstone structure that housed the College of Business Administration. Across the busy four-lane that divided the campus from the town was a restaurant and general hangout known as the College Inn, CI for short.

    Traffic was light in August. In two weeks, it would increase to a temporary madness when hordes of parents arrived to help their sons and daughters carry the trunks and suitcases, the freshly laundered clothes and the desk lamps and electric fans and boxes of books and hotplates and coffee pots for the long nights of cramming that would come in cold November. Stall was in the middle of the street waiting for a Merita Bread truck to pass when he saw the two men come out of the CI. A brown suit and a dark-blue one. No badge that he could see, but the taller man carried a worn brown leather satchel. It was four fifteen and the lowering sun poured its hot light down University Avenue, which ran east and west as true as the flight of a bullet.

    The two men stood talking on the sidewalk in front of the CI, only two lanes away from Stall. For some reason, Stall could not make himself walk toward them. He stood on the two yellow lines, a few inches of safety in the middle of the street, watching them until they noticed him. The man in the blue suit, the taller of the two, a man with an athletic build, short blond hair, and a handsome face that reminded Stall of the actor Alan Ladd, nodded to Stall. Then the two men walked east toward the intersection of University Avenue and 13th Street, where the citizens of Gainesville crossed from the town to the campus. University was an avenue of clothing stores, restaurants, bars, and theaters that gave way eventually to the old downtown and the buildings that housed justice, religion, and commerce. Crossing the remaining two lanes in long strides, Stall watched the men go. Before he entered the College Inn, one of the few air-conditioned buildings in the town, he looked down at his shirtsleeves and remembered pulling on the new blazer that morning.

    Stall was alone in the place except for the counterman who was stacking silverware in racks for the coming dinner rush. The coffee Stall ordered was a gooey reduction that had sat thickening since lunch. He thought with longing of the glittering bottles that lined the bar at the Gold Coast next door and then noticed the phone booth in the corner. Should he call Amos Harding? Harding, the aging department chairman, was Stall’s boss and the man he hoped to replace someday. In late August, Harding vacationed in the mountains of North Carolina, a place he loved for the isolation and the trout fishing, and for the absence of his wife who stayed in Gainesville with her sister. Why bother the old man with bad news? He’ll be back soon . . . soon enough to hear of death.

    TWO

    Still in his shirtsleeves and feeling the return of the adrenal energy that had poured through him during that long half hour at Murphree Hall, Stall leaned on the kitchen counter and watched his wife slice tomatoes for their salad. The good smell of roast beef came from the oven. Their first martinis stood crystalline on either side of the sink, Stall’s half finished, his wife’s untouched. She had stopped crying, but Stall could see the pathways of her tears in the light dusting of powder she had applied for his homecoming. The two things, the makeup she had put on for him and her tears, moved Stall so much that his own eyes burned. He took a long pull of cold gin and turned away to square himself. He had banished their daughter Corey from the kitchen at the first sight of Maureen’s tears and without any proper explanation for her exile, and he knew he’d have to make that right with her soon. Maureen put down her knife and rinsed red tomato juice from her hands.

    Jack Leaf. I just can’t . . . How do you understand a thing like this? She looked at Stall out of swollen red eyes as though she meant the question, as though she thought he could tell her how.

    He shook his head thoughtfully and took another sip of the good cold gin. Gin, he thought, how I love it. It’s one way to deal with the surprising hell of life. He had not told Maureen that, after he had tried the coffee in the CI and found it to be not enough, not by a long way, he had gone next door to the Gold Coast, a student dive, for two stiff shots of bourbon before taking the city bus home. She’d had the martinis waiting when he walked in the door and he’d taken a long sip of gin to cover the bourbon before giving Maureen her first kiss. Then he’d told her about Jack Leaf’s walk in the air.

    Maureen drew in a hiss of breath. Oh my God, did you . . . did anyone call Sarah?

    Oh Christ, Sarah. Jack’s wife Sarah.

    Bourbon-stunned, Stall had ridden the bus home to their prairie-

    style house on a hill just up from the construction site for the new law school. They’d bought this house so that he could walk and bus to work and Maureen could keep their Packard at home. She’d told him she’d be a housewife for him, but not housebound like her mother had been. She wouldn’t be without a car for anyone. As the bus had labored up the hill past the vast sprawl of married-student housing, Stall had thought through what he had done for Jack Leaf and for the university. When he’d finished the sad inventory of his actions, he’d said to himself, I did my duty. Now, standing beside Maureen in their kitchen waiting for a second martini, he had to tell his wife that it hadn’t occurred to him to call Sarah Leaf, or even to wonder who would call her. The awful thought hit him that right now Sarah could be standing at her own kitchen sink paring carrots and waiting for Jack to come home.

    God, Mar baby, I didn’t think of that, what with all I had to . . .

    Maureen turned and looked at him sharply, and the fear came alight in Stall’s brain that she might cry again. A woman’s tears had always turned Tom Stall into a standing heap of mush.

    His wife’s eyes softened but not into tears. She gave him her frailty-thy-name-is-man look, which, considering her options, was at least in the upper third of good outcomes. He gave her his I’m-very-sorry smile, his only option. Do you think I should call her now?

    It was a day of things occurring to Stall and one came to him now: he, they, Tom Stall and wife, would have to visit Sarah Leaf, and soon. They’d have to go to Sarah’s door with food of some kind, probably Maureen’s chicken-and–mushroom soup casserole, and they’d have to say and do the right things. Stall dreaded it, not because he found no meaning in such things, and not because he took the fashionable literary view of bourgeois convention (which right now meant a French existentialist view, the harshest of any available), but because he was no damned good at such things. He was just flat bad at offering human comfort to his fellow man. It was an odd thing, irony, because Stall believed that he loved his fellow man, loved Him with a capital H in the way that Whitman had loved the crowds in Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.

    We fathom you not—we love you—there is per-

    fection in you also,

    You furnish your parts toward eternity,

    Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the

    Soul.

    Stall loved people in the aggregate for their wonderful, messy, preposterous, goofy optimism. Loving his fellow man in his individual, farting, nose-picking, often criminally stupid state was hard, but Stall tried. In the war he’d seen the worst of human doings (blessedly, for a very short time), but he’d come away from that experience with a stronger sense of human goodness. He’d seen incredible valor too. Should he ever realize his dream of returning to Paris with enough money to show Maureen around in style, he knew that Jean-Paul Sartre and his sometime friend Albert Camus would not allow him even to walk past their café, Les Deux Magots, much less have a drink with them. Loving the world was not their cup of absinthe.

    After thinking it over through a sip of martini, Maureen said, No, don’t call her now. I think it’s better for you to wait until we know more. She looked out through the kitchen window at their backyard where a pair of cardinals, bright red cock and dull hen, splashed in the birdbath. To the window she said, "I’m sure someone has told her about Jack. Someone from the hospital or the police. We’ll call together tomorrow."

    By the tone of her voice and the way she surveyed the backyard, beautiful in the falling summer light, Stall knew that she was composing the image in her mind of exactly how to comfort Sarah Leaf. The right way to do it.

    * * *

    After dinner and after Stall and his wife had told their daughter that something bad had happened at the university and this bad thing, the death of a friend, had made her mother cry, their daughter Corey, a hearty, athletic girl of twelve who had not known Jack Leaf except as a man to say hello to as he came and went at the few departmental gatherings the Stalls had hosted, seemed to take the death of Jack Leaf more as an idea (people die), than as anything personal.

    Stall had taken pains to tell her that there was a very good chance that Jack Leaf had accidentally fallen from a window. Corey had asked a few questions, and these matched the logic of accidents, not suicide: Was Mr. Leaf teaching when he fell? Did the students see him fall? Did anyone try to catch him? When Stall could see that she was more or less satisfied with her parents’ explanations, he sent her to her room to finish her homework. Her mother said, Corey, you’ll hear about this in school tomorrow. It’s better not to say that Daddy had anything to do with it.

    But Mom, isn’t that lying?

    No, lying is saying something that’s untrue. Saying nothing is not lying. It’s discretion.

    Both Stalls knew that their daughter would beat a path to her dictionary, so Stall said to her retreating, pajamaed form, That’s d-i-s, not d-e-s.

    After washing and drying the dishes, Stall and his wife sat at the kitchen table, the place of their most serious discussions, with third martinis in front of them and commenced what Stall hoped would be a kind of elegy for Jack Leaf. The best thing they could do tonight, a thing in keeping with what Stall thought of as his love of the world, was to remember Jack Leaf well. Tell stories. Bring him back to life in words.

    Why did he do it? Maureen sipped and gave Stall a look he saw only rarely. She was what the frat boys called a cheap date; the reference was to capacity for liquor not morals, though the two sometimes became confused. From experience, Stall knew that she was very close to the line that separated earnestly inebriated from stupidly drunk. He had only seen her on the far side of the line a few times, and over there she was not pretty. In that country she was abrupt, far too truthful, sometimes angry, and often inclined to think she had discovered things about her husband that her sober mind would have left alone. Stall had poured the third martini hoping it would be elegiac, lubrication for a Whitmanesque celebration of Jack Leaf. He had led Maureen here to the borderland, or at least he had not stopped her from approaching it. He said, We’d better take it easy, and reached out to place a hand across her glass.

    She slid the glass out of reach. I asked you why he did it.

    Stall shrugged. In the last hour, fatigue had hit him. It was nine o’clock and felt like midnight. He’d had five drinks and was reconnoitering number six. I don’t know, he said. It was the truth, but not all of it.

    Maureen gave him the sharp look again, and when her head turned toward him, her glass lurched, spilling some of the crystalline fluid. Was it the war?

    Jack Leaf, like many men who had fought, had not talked much about the war. He answered questions when asked, but questions were rare and his answers were brief. The English faculty were his social group, and they were, like Stall, mostly born to the role of spectator. Jack Leaf could have said a lot about the war, most people knew that, but he chose not to talk, and people respected his silence.

    Stall had gone to the war, had served honorably if briefly, had been wounded, had nearly died of an infection probably resulting from having contaminated the shrapnel wound at the back of his thigh with shit that had exploded from his bowels with the concussion that came milliseconds after the explosion of a German shell. He had returned to consciousness lying in the snow between two dead men. He could not call them buddies, friends, anything like that. In the darkness, confusion, fear, and frenzy they had been shapes, faces safer for him than those of the men shooting at him, but nothing more than that.

    When Stall awoke, the battle had moved on. In the distance, rifles rattled and cannons flashed. It was unbearably cold and he had no idea where he was. He assumed that he had been left for dead, covered as he was with blood from the men on either side of him. He waited until morning, shivering in the pathetically light wool greatcoat the army had considered adequate for Europe in the winter of 1945. The bleeding at the back of his thigh had stopped, and when dawn came he found that he could walk well enough leaning on the rifle he had found, and that walking did not cause the bleeding to start again. He never found his platoon (most of the forty had been killed), and never found his company, but he found the army and attached himself to it. He did not report the wound which he considered insignificant. For another week he walked, crouched, starved, shivered, and tried to hack holes in frozen ground until his thigh swelled to the size of his waist and he was sent to the rear with a raging fever, incipient gangrene, and the probability of amputation.

    His leg was saved by the first-ever application in wartime of a new drug known as penicillin. His recovery took months, and when he was strong enough to enjoy a weekend pass, he went to Paris. Like Jack Leaf, Tom Stall never talked much about his war. He was proud to have served in what he considered a great cause, but he had seen too much of the chaos that arose from the best intentions to care much for causes again. One cause in a lifetime was enough. Now life, to Stall, was an everyday thing. Goodness was in a wife’s kiss and the feel of her breast as you left a warm bed in the morning, a child’s smile at the breakfast table. It was in a good cup of coffee at a drugstore counter, it was in talking to friends, and in more complicated ways it was in good books, and that was all there was to it.

    If Stall had a regret, it was that his wound was not in the front of his body. He had been lying facedown in the snow when the shell exploded, a German 88 with a proximity fuse. A shell designed to burst above the heads of troops, to kill men crouching in holes in the ground. White-hot fragments rained down and killed what they could find, and it was only a tiny piece of steel that found Stall. He still wore it behind his femur. It hid there telling him nothing, not even when the weather would change. His only regret about his war was literary, or perhaps more accurately, historical. He loved the quotation attributed to Alexander the Great when, after years of conquest, his army mutinied before a battle in India. The men were worn out and demanded to go home. The young king called them to assembly, stepped forth, and stripped naked. Does any man among you honestly feel that he has suffered more for me than I have suffered for him? Come now—if you are wounded, strip and show your wounds, and I will show mine. There is no part of my body but my back which has not a scar; not a weapon a man may grasp or fling the mark of which I do not carry upon me. Show this man to me and I will yield to your weariness and go home. No one came forward. Instead, the army burst into wild cheering. In tears, the men begged Alexander to forgive their lack of spirit and pleaded with him only to lead them forward.

    Stall’s wound was in the back of his leg. His war had been brief, and all he knew of life so far, it had taught him. Keep your head down when you can. Be good to others, ask for the same in return, drink the wines of the countryside and eat the good food, and don’t overcomplicate simple things. Occasionally people asked Stall about his war, and when they did, he gently tried to change the subject, and if they pressed him, and if he’d had a little bit to drink, sometimes he said, I was only there for a few months. I was shot in the ass, but I was not running away.

    Stall drank some of his unusual third martini and said, Jack fought all the way from Normandy to the Rhine with the 101st Airborne. He was wounded three times, and he won a medal. One of the big ones. He had a good war, or a bad one, depending on how you look at it. Stall set down the drink and examined it, begging it for the truth he knew it held. In vino veritas. Was survival itself enough to justify three wounds and a year of brutal fighting? He’d never asked Jack Leaf that question.

    "How did he look at it?" Maureen waited. She was very close to the line Stall did not want her to cross.

    He didn’t say. At least not to me. I saw his medals mounted in a glass case in his study. I just stuck my head in there one night at a party. You know, curious to see a colleague’s lair. His was close to perfect—like an English gentleman’s study. Leather chairs, a big rosewood desk, rows of books, a mahogany humidor, and a rack of pipes. Everything neat as a pin. Jack was all about order in life and work. Until the end, Stall thought.

    "Where was he wounded?"

    Stall wanted to say, All over Europe, but knew that would be the gin talking. He said, I don’t know. I never saw him in anything but his professor outfit.

    You never saw him naked?

    Maureen knew, of course, that Stall had showered with many of his colleagues. Handball was the English professor’s game of choice. Played well, it was serious exercise. Several of the younger men played the game at noon, showered, and returned to their offices for sandwiches at their desks. So, yes, Stall had seen a lot of professorial nakedness, some of it ugly, some of it beautiful, none of it Jack Leaf. Stall shook his head.

    Where was he from?

    Oklahoma, I think. His PhD is from Vanderbilt. I don’t know where he got his BA. Of course, Maureen knew about Jack Leaf’s Vanderbilt connection. Of such things were pecking orders made, and the English Department hierarchy mattered to Maureen as it did to all of the wives. Possibly even more than it mattered to Stall.

    She sipped and set down her glass with great concentration. Did you know his middle name was Red?

    Red? You mean a nickname?

    No. I mean his full name was Jack Red Leaf.

    You’re kidding.

    Maureen shook her head in a way meant to be decisive. Some of her gin slipped over the rim of her glass.

    Where’d you get that? Stall slid his chair closer to his wife’s at the kitchen table. His knee touched hers.

    From Sarah. She told me.

    "When? Why? She just told you, Oh, by the way, my husband’s middle name is Red?"

    Of course not. Don’t be an ass.

    There it was. The anger that lived in the heart of Maureen from Across the Border. Where did it come from? Stall wondered. The gin only let it out, called it from its hiding place. What was the source of the anger in Maureen Stall?

    From the land beyond earnestly inebriated, Maureen looked at him and then at her martini as though she were having a hard time deciding which she liked best. Or least.

    Sarah told me one night at a party—maybe it was the same party where you snuck into Jack’s study and pronounced it neat as a pin. Anyway, we were talking about marriage, you know, couples and how they meet, what attracts them, makes them want to be together.

    Obscurely, Stall saw that he might not like where this was going. With women, it was tit for tat, and just as surely as Jack Leaf’s wife had told Maureen about her and Jack, so had Maureen given Sarah Leaf her tit. No, Stall didn’t mean that. It was the gin talking and not well, but the idea was clear. Stall feared what Maureen might have told Sarah about the attraction between the Stalls. Not because he knew what she might have revealed, but because he had no idea.

    Maureen said, She said it was his skin.

    His skin?

    Yes, his skin. Come on, Tom. Think about it. The skin of Jack Red Leaf?

    It came to Stall. No!

    Yes, what else could it be?

    You’re saying he was an Indian? You’re saying Sarah told you that?

    "Not in so many words. Her exact words were, From the first time I saw him, I loved his skin. His dark skin. It was so smooth. The man had no wrinkles. It covered him like caramel poured over a cake. You know what I mean, Maureen, and here she stopped and she sort of winked at me. We were both drinking, of course, and it was late at night in their house and most people were already gone, and you were off snooping in Jack’s study, and she winked and said, You know, Maureen, my husband’s full name is Jack Red Leaf."

    And you knew . . .

    Not until later. Not until I thought about it. And I started to wonder why she told me and what that wink meant. It was sort of a dirty wink, if you know what I mean.

    Stall thought about it. She could only mean one thing. "You mean, uh, sexy dirty. That kind of dirty."

    Yeah, that kind. I think I know Sarah well enough to know when she goes sexy dirty late at night in her cups.

    What was she drinking? We, uh, ought to get—

    Oh, don’t be an ass. She was drinking firewater. I don’t know, probably bourbon. She likes bourbon. The question is, why did she want me to know what, apparently, nobody else knows or has even cared to think about? Why Jack Leaf’s skin was so dark.

    I don’t know . . . Stall ignored the fact that his wife had called him an ass twice, and considered the question. "I just thought—I mean if I thought about it—I thought his

    Hai raggiunto la fine di questa anteprima. Registrati per continuare a leggere!
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